A Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.” Aptly put, especially for this time of year.
The optimal tree planting time in Illinois falls in spring and autumn. Getting trees off to a good start ensures their existence well beyond our own.
New gardeners often assume sticking plants in the ground follows one technique. When planting tomatoes, they learned to strip off the lower leaves and bury not only the roots but also part of the stem in the ground. That works great for tomatoes. It predicts disaster for trees.
For our purposes, trees have four main parts: roots, root flare, trunk and canopy. Of course, the roots go beneath the soil. Everything else must stay above ground, including the root flare – that part at the base of the trunk expanding wider than the rest.
The root flare comprises part of the trunk and does not fare so well when buried. The constant moisture below ground causes rot, making the tree susceptible to disease and pests.
A tree is also not perennial. It may come in a container like perennials, but the advice for planting differs. Perennials come out of the pot and go into the ground kept at the same soil level as in the pot. If you can’t see the root flare on the tree in the container, remove the soil around the trunk until you find it. Now you know how deep to plant it.
Nor is a tree an annual. If you plant an annual in the wrong spot, no problem. Next year you get another chance, and another one the year after that. A tree will live for decades, even centuries, so site it with the future in mind. Read – and believe – the tag when determining how tall and wide your little twig of a tree will eventually become. It saves a lot of future anguish when the utility company comes and brutalizes it to protect the power lines. Also, don’t plant a future massive maple or oak as a foundation tree.
Once you remove the tree from its container and find the root flare, determine how deep to dig the hole. Dig no deeper than the level of the root ball, but twice as wide. Before planting, examine the roots, your last chance to do so. Remove any tight circling roots and splay out the rest. Do not add any compost to the fill dirt. Use the same soil that came out of the hole to backfill. Water well, and continue to monitor moisture for the first growing season. Twenty years from now, you will have followed the Chinese proverb.
Ask the Expert
Q: What are your suggestions for cascading container plants besides sweet potato vine?
A: Try Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia) or Sweet Alyssum for medium pots and Helichrysum in really large pots.
Q: Every spring, vertical and horizontal lines of holes appear on my tree trunk. What causes them and will it hurt the tree?
A: Migrating woodpeckers, probably yellow bellied sapsuckers, chose your yard for a rest and lunch stop on their way north. They will not hurt the tree.